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How statements by Republican lawmakers have made things harder for Trump’s legal team

New details about January 6 show how flimsy Trump’s impeachment defense is.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) speaks during an appropriations committee hearing in February 2020.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense is looking more threadbare: New statements by Republican lawmakers appear to undercut key claims from his defense team about how much Trump knew about the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, and when he knew it.

New details emerged Friday about a call between Trump and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy in the midst of the attack. First recounted in January by Washington state Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who was one of just 10 House Republicans to vote for impeachment, the call gives insight into Trump’s state of mind on the day of the insurrection and suggests his sympathies lay with the rioters.

“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump reportedly told McCarthy as rioters stormed the Capitol.

The defense had argued that “the president would never have wanted such a riot to occur because his longstanding hatred for violent protesters,” but Trump’s conversation with McCarthy — as well as his long history of inciting violence well before the attack on the Capitol — flies in the face of that claim.

According to some Republicans, the call is damning: “He is not a blameless observer, he was rooting for them,” one anonymous Republican told CNN of Trump’s role in the attack.

And Herrera Beutler, who reaffirmed her account of the call in a statement Friday, said that “you have to look at what [Trump] did during the insurrection to confirm where his mind was at.”

“That line right there demonstrates to me that either he didn’t care, which is impeachable, because you cannot allow an attack on your soil, or he wanted it to happen and was okay with it, which makes me so angry,” Herrera Beutler told CNN.

This account briefly appeared to have changed the shape of the trial. Lawmakers and observers had predicted a quick end to the impeachment proceedings as soon as Saturday afternoon; however, a surprising Senate vote on Saturday to allow witnesses could have brought testimony from Beutler and others to the trial. But impeachment managers quickly dropped the idea after Senate negotiations, instead agreeing on submitting a statement from Beutler into the record.

First-term Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) may have also put a hole in Trump’s impeachment defense this week: Michael van der Veen, a member of Trump’s legal team, told lawmakers Friday that Trump was not aware of the danger posed to former Vice President Mike Pence by rioters, but a statement from Tuberville suggests otherwise.

According to Tuberville, he spoke to Trump on the phone as the January 6 attack was underway, and told him Pence was being evacuated.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, they just took the vice president out, I’ve got to go,’” Tuberville told reporters earlier this week, an account that he reaffirmed on Friday.

Trump has been criticized for sending a tweet attacking Pence at 2:24 pm Eastern time on January 6, writing that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”

According to a spokesperson for Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Trump called Lee at 2:26 pm, two minutes after sending that tweet, and Lee passed his phone to Tuberville at that time. Lee has reportedly provided impeachment managers and the defense team a record of this call, which lasted for about four minutes, verifying it.

Pence was evacuated from the Senate chamber at 2:15 pm, according to Politico. Reporting suggests that the mob, which chanted “hang Mike Pence” and erected a gallows outside of the Capitol, came within seconds of encountering the former vice president as he was evacuated.

Despite Tuberville having informed Trump about the situation at the Capitol, van der Veen was unequivocal on Friday: “The answer is no,” van der Veen said in response to a question from Sens. Mitt Romney and Susan Collins. “At no point was the president informed the vice president was in any danger.”

In response to a separate question from Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, van der Veen also dismissed Tuberville’s account as “hearsay.” (Which it is not, given Tuberville was present for his conversation with Trump.)

It’s unclear if either of the new revelations will change the outcome of the trial. The overwhelming majority of Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are expected to vote to acquit Trump, and Democrats would need to win over 17 GOP votes to actually convict the former president, and potentially bar him from holding public office in the future.

In 2020, just one Republican — Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — voted to convict Trump after his 2019 impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Trump’s impeachment team has been troubled from the start

The Trump legal team’s fumbling wasn’t contained to a lack of clarity about when Trump became aware of the severity of the insurrection, either: When pressed, van der Veen appeared to have little to offer regarding Trump’s actual actions on the day of the attack.

In reply to one question Friday, which asked for a detailed account of “specific actions” taken by Trump to “bring the rioting to an end,” van der Veen pivoted to attack the House impeachment managers rather than offer evidence.

“The House managers did zero investigation,” van der Veen said, “and the American people deserve a lot better than coming in here with no evidence, hearsay on top of hearsay on top of reports that are of hearsay.”

At various other points, the defense relied on a bizarre supercut of Democrats using the word “fight” in speeches, litigated the difference between Calvary and cavalry, and complained that law professors found Trump’s legal defense “frivolous.”

All told, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote Friday, Trump’s legal team “didn’t really rebut the core of the House’s case. They either danced around it or outright misinterpreted some of the core issues.”

The team has also been roiled by resignations and almost-resignations. In late January, Trump’s original legal team unraveled because Trump reportedly “wanted the attorneys to argue there was mass election fraud and it was stolen from him rather than focus on proposed arguments about constitutionality.”

And as recently as Thursday, one member of the team — lawyer David Schoen — attempted to resign after clashing over the use of video evidence in the trial, though according to the New York Times, a call by Trump brought him back on board.

The team’s performance was even panned by some Republican senators on the opening day of the trial Tuesday: Collins said that another member of Trump’s team, Bruce Castor, “did not seem to make any arguments at all, which was an unusual approach to take.”

Their performance, however, perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise. As Beauchamp put it Friday, “Trump’s conduct on January 6, and before it, really was indefensible. It was inevitable that the attempt to defend it would fail.”

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